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This interview is a transcript of TV B92’s popular head-to-head talk show discussing current issues - Poligraf

Kosovo Ė the European future of Serbia
February 28th, 2006

Guest: Michael Polt, US Ambassador to Serbia and Montenegro
Host: Jugoslav ∆osiś

B92: Good evening. The European Union has issued a stern warning to the Serbian Government that negotiations over Serbiaís EU entry process would come into question if they fail to achieve full co-operation with the Hague Tribunal in the immediate future. A similar message came from Washington via the US Embassy to SCG. Tonight we are talking to US Ambassador to Serbia and Montenegro Michael Polt in an exclusive interview to Poligraf. Good evening and welcome.

Polt: Good Evening

B92: To start with, Mr Polt, has anything changed in the US attitude over Kosovo? Do you believe, as do the main negotiators in the Kosovo future status process, such as Mr Ahtisaari, Mr Rohan, who ought to be neutral, but also the British Foreign Office Political Director, that Kosovo will gain independence if Serbs and Albanians do not reach an agreement?

Polt: There are two sides to the issue of the future status of Kosovo. The views in Pristina and the views in Belgrade. The leadership in Pristina has made very clear that they seek independence. Belgrade has clearly said that that is not an acceptable outcome for the leadership here. What we want to facilitate is a working together of the two sides to find a way forward to address first and foremost the key issues of the living conditions of the Serb and other minorities in Kosovo and thereafter come to some kind of adequate solution to the actual status of the province.

B92: But if the key representatives of the international community who are partaking in the negotiations are sending such messages, that if Serbs and Albanians fail to reach an agreement Kosovo will probably gain independence, why would the Albanian side accept a compromise?

Polt: I think what you have found now as we got closer and more deeply in the negotiation process is that the friends of Serbia, the friends of the region, are trying to be open and be clear in what they see as possibilities that are going to be on the table. Up until now we have all been very careful not to talk about the word independence, which is so sensitive here, in Belgrade in particular. What the people are trying to is say - look we are going to have to talk about that word "independence", whether you agree with it or donít agree with it. You have to talk about it, and thatís why I think it has been laid on the table as something that has to be the subject of discussion.

B92: I have to notice, Mr. Polt, that I have not heard you or anyone from Washington use this word, but I have to bring to your attention several statements by Rosemary Di Carlo of the US State Department, who said that Kosovo was a unique case that resulted from violence, the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and the disregard of certain decisions, and that it cannot be compared to other frozen conflicts. Does this mean that the solution for Kosovo can emerge in contradiction with international rules, that it can be an exemption from international rules?

Polt: No, we don't mean to say that it should be an exception from international law or against international rules. What we are trying to say is that Kosovo is a unique case. We do not believe it needs to be a precedent for other conflicts that exist around the globe and around the region. We want to look at the Kosovo situation by itself and see what solution can be found for this unique situation.

B92: The International Group for Law and Politics is a reputed NGO in the US headed by Mr Paul Williams. I am acquainted with information that this group has already drafted the Constitution of an independent Kosovo state. What is your knowledge in that respect?

Plot: I do not know anything about this particular case, but I think it is very important for us not to jump to conclusions as to a process that has not yet run its course. We know what the opposing positions are, but we are in the midst of these negotiations and I think we ought to go ahead and flush out all the elements of these negotiations until we come to the final point that talks about the actual status of Kosovo.

B92: Do you know whether the Contact Group truly holds a unified position over the issue of Kosovo at this moment? Mr Ahtisaari said at one point that the Contact Groupís stand was the following Ė if the Serbs and the Albanians do not reach an agreement over a solution for the future of Kosovo, the majority of the citizens of Kosovo will have to be the ones to make this decision. If that ends up being the case, one does not have to be very prophetic to realise what the outcome will be.

Polt: Look, the view of the people living in Kosovo is obviously going to be a key element in the decision about the future of |Kosovo. Clearly the people most affected by this decision are the ones who ought to have a major input in that outcome. At the same time, I want to emphasise that we should be focusing on the key elements that pertain to the status of Serbs and other minorities in Kosovo, rather than jump directly to the end of the negotiation, when the beginning and the middle have not been settled yet.

B92: The international community once held a position that standards should come before status in the Kosovo negotiation process. Their view is different today. Was this change influenced by the fact that the US are in a hurry, perhaps because they have other priorities elsewhere on the planet?

Polt: It's not that we are in a hurry. But look, we are being very realistic. The last six years have not resulted in a settlement and in living conditions for Serbs and other minorities in Kosovo that we consider to be satisfactory. We want to go ahead and find a satisfactory solution to the situation in Kosovo and we don't want to take another six years or longer to go ahead and settle it.

B92: I donít know how well you are acquainted with the history of Serbian-Albanian relations, but I am certain that you are acquainted with Mr Carl Eide's report. I have an example for this occasion: in the village of Svinjare, where Albanians torched all 136 Serb houses on March 17th 2004 we still thefts have and break-ins happening there today so that Serbs would not return to their houses that have been repaired by the authorities in Kosovo. Therefore, anxiety, fear and restrictions to freedom are the same as they were before. How does the international community expect, to quote one Serbian writer, to build a multi-ethnic society in a place where there is no society at all, very often for Albanians as well?

Polt: This is not the only conflict that has ever existed, where ethnic groups or other groups divided by different types of backgrounds have had a difficult time to find a way to live alongside each other or with each other. It is clear that what happened in March 2004 was an outrageous attack on the rights, human rights and living conditions of the minority Serbs in Kosovo. It is entirely possible to find ways for people who have lived well together for a long time, or for people who have fought against each other for a long time to find ways of finding a common future, which is exactly what we are talking about in this negotiation. We talk constantly about Kosovo, the status of Kosovo the future of Kosovo, but actually what we are really talking about here is the future of Europe, the future of Serbia and Kosovo and the future of the entire region inside that Europe, where people of all types of different ethnic backgrounds have found a way to live together peacefully.

B92: I can comprehend your vision, Mr Polt, which pertains to the years that are still to come, but before that the people should certainly be provided with the right to life and dignity. While reading your statements, I have often noticed you saying that you value human life much more than political solutions. It seems, unfortunately, that the majority in Kosovo do not feel the same way about the lives of non-Albanians, however. Are you quite sure that there is no way we can experience a recurrence of the events and violence from March two years ago, because there are some indices that something similar might happen?

Polt: I'll tell you two things about that. Number one is: I want to believe in the basic decency of human beings, in finding a way to live with each other in peace and in harmony. I know that everybody does not feel that way, and I also know that reality is not always that way. But the fact is that it would be difficult for me to say or to agree with you that the majority of Albanians in Kosovo do not want Serbs in Kosovo to live in peace. I am not sure that is the case. I know there are problems and I know there are people of ill will, I also know there are people of good will. But, when it comes down to whether the month of March two years ago will be repeated, I can assure you that the United States, and I can speak for the rest of the international community, will do absolutely everything in its power that this absolutely does not happen again.

B92: But the same forces were there two years ago, the same soldiers, the same officers, and they knew about the possibility of such an incident happening. I am asking this because of the fear non-Albanians in Kosovo have that something similar might happen again and that the international forces will have a priority to save the lives of their own soldiers.

Polt: The concern of the people is justified, but we all learn from our experiences. We have learned from last March's experiences and we have adjusted our methods, our rules of operation, and we have adjusted our tactics to make sure we are better able to respond immediately if there is any threat of this kind of thing repeating itself.

B92: Mr Polt, I am sure you are aware that Kosovo is still full of weapons, that there are powerful criminal groups engaged in the illegal trade of arms, people and narcotics. Some sources within the police even claim that Kosovo is the largest depot of heroin in Europe, information that is also known, according to my knowledge, to the CIA and FBI. You are a very experienced diplomat, you were engaged in arms control programmes, served in Panama and many regard you as a specialist for conflict regions. What is the future of stability in the region with an independent Kosovo state full of weapons and troubled by these other issues that I have mentioned?

Polt: Look, the international community and the United States very much included in that has every intention of staying with Kosovo and staying with Serbia in working on a peaceful and rule-of-law dedicated future. We know that there are issues concerning the rule of law in Kosovo, as there are issues concerning the rule of law in Serbia and in other parts of the world. We deal with imperfect situations in the world and we intend to make sure that in Kosovo a free, democratic, organised society is the future of that area of the world for all the people who live there, be they Serb, be they Albanian, be they of any other ethnic background.

B92: Does this mean that the international community, including the United States, will not leave Kosovo until it becomes, as you said, a free, democratic and organised society?

Polt: We have no intention of leaving a job before it is done. We will continue the work with our European partners and others to go ahead and make sure that the rights of people living in Kosovo are secured and the future of Kosovo is put on the path towards European integration.

B92: Mr Polt, the citizens of the United States unfortunately had to live through a great tragedy brought upon them by Al Qaeda terrorists and they are fully aware of the kind of danger they pose. What they might not be aware of is that Al Qaeda had aided the Albanian insurrection in Kosovo as well. Do you think there are still those in Kosovo today who are in debt to Al Qaeda?

Polt: I do not know if I wish to discuss that kind of information in a public setting and I don't know any particulars about this, but let me put it this way: we are concerned about the security and safety of all the people living in Kosovo when we talk specifically about that issue. We will continue to use all of our information, all of our efforts, all of our collaborative work together, whether it is KFOR, UNMIK, Mr Ahtisaari or the Contact Group, to make sure that whatever threats there are to the safety and the lives to human beings in Kosovo [are removed]. We have found a way to work on these issues and find a way to make sure people live in safety and with a vision of a future of prosperity in that part of the world.

B92: Mr Polt, I found this information, that Al Qaeda had aided the insurrection in Kosovo, in a book titled ďBin Laden, The Man Who Declared War on AmericaĒ, by Yossef Bodansky. He is also the head of the US Congress Working Group for Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, hence an official of the US administration. This is why I asked you this question. You are not aware of these details?

Polt: I am not prepared to discuss any part of whatever efforts there would be concerning anti-terrorist activities by the United States or others, but if you are assuming whether there is potential terrorist involvement in negative things happening, not just here, but in other parts of the world, the answer is - that is entirely possible. All we need to do is, whether it is in the United States, or in Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, or in any other part of the world, we go ahead and do what organised and civilised societies do, and that is insure the rule of law and the safety of its citizens.

B92: Letís get back to Kosovo. If the international community should impose a solution on Serbia that the Serbian government would not accept, would the US find it acceptable if the Kosovo Serbs declared that they did not want to live in such a Kosovo, but to live together with the rest of Serbia? Would it be acceptable if they held their own referendum to decide what kind of future they wanted?

Polt: First of all, I'm not prepared to talk about or contemplate the imposition of anything on either Belgrade or Pristina. We should talk about sitting down together to work on a common solution. As for the other part of the question, I believe that free people should be able to decide freely in any place of the world where they would like to be and they should go ahead and move freely to where else they would like to be. But the important thing is not whether it is good for people to leave Kosovo if they don't want to be there any more, but do we help create conditions in Kosovo to make it possible for anybody, be he Albanian, or Serb or Askali, or of any other nationality and ethnic background to live in safety and in harmony in that region.

B92: My question was more directly linked to the possibility of dividing Kosovo. Has the US ruled out the possibility of a division of Kosovo, as the Contact Group already has in their statements?

Polt: Yes we have excluded that possibility. We will not support and we will actively oppose any discussion about the partition of Kosovo.

B92: Mr Polt, what is your vision regarding the direction in which Serbiaís relations with the US and EU will move towards in case the Serbian government rejects a solution that may possibly be imposed by the international community if the Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo fail to reach an agreement over the future status of the province?

Polt: Setting aside the issue of imposition which I am not prepared to contemplate or discuss, but let's just say that in the future I expect that the relationship between the United States and Serbia will continue to improve in the very positive way it has improved since the ouster of Mr Milosevic from this country. We have worked consistently and steadily with the authorities and, most importantly, with the people of your country to create a relationship of trust and of friendship, and of forward movement in the integration of Serbia in the Euro-Atlantic community. That's the way I believe our relationship is going to grow. That's, I think, the future for, not just our relationship, but the future for the Serbian people, and we are going to be walking side by side with you to reach the goals that you have set for yourselves in that regard.

B92: There are ongoing legal proceedings before the International Criminal Tribunal of Justice in the Hague in which Bosnia and Herzegovina have filed charges of genocide against Serbia and Montenegro. The same court rejected a lawsuit by the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia against NATO with the explanation that the case was not within its jurisdiction, because the country that filed the lawsuit was not a UN member at the time. Can we expect the same line of reasoning now, by which the Court ought to reject Bosnia and Herzegovinaís lawsuit against Serbia? What is your angle on this issue?

Polt: As you know, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on an ongoing legal dispute that\s going on and since this case is in active consideration right now, I think it needs to be left to the proper judicial authorities for them to find a solution

B92: Would you lend support to a similar line of reasoning?

Polt: It would be bad for me to say what I would or would not support in relation to an ongoing legal case, so I think it needs to stay within that legal parameter where it is right now.

B92: Mr Ambassador, several days ago you said that Serbia was facing certain consequences that will not stop at mere warnings if Serbia does not achieve full co-operation with the Hague Tribunal in the nearest future. What kind of consequences did you have in mind?

Polt: Well let me answer that in two ways. Number one, you have already been living the consequences of not meeting this very important and key international obligation. The fact that Mr Mladic and Mr Karadzic and other war criminals have not yet been fully delivered to the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague has put Serbia in a difficult international position. The international reputation of Serbia is affected by this, the international investment climate of Serbia is affected by this, and now, in the latest stages, you have seen what the EU has said just yesterday, about the future of the negotiation process for the European entry of Serbia, and, as you know, the United States has a certification requirement, which we will again have to decide on regarding the level of compliance with the Hague Tribunal by Serbia and, so far, the picture does not look good for Serbia.

B92: If I am not mistaken, this was also your statement: ĄTwo days after Mladic departs for the Hague, we shall support Serbiaís entry to NATOĒ. Is this really your stand? Will you support Serbiaís entry to NATO and the Partnership for Peace two days after this happens?

Polt: That's true, maybe even less that two days.

B92: Mr Polt, Serbia is facing some very important challenges and maybe some uncertain political developments, not just issues of nation and state, but also some internal political issues. How do you look at the possibility of the Serbian Radical Party winning at the next elections or forming the next government in a coalition with some other party?

Polt: It is not for me to judge or to voice opinions as to what is going to happen in your political context. That is clearly for the people of Serbia to decide. But, I will answer your question in this way. I think this is a year where, very likely, the people of Serbia will have to make choice as to what kind of future they want for their country. Do you want to go ahead and move forward toward the kind European, prosperous, democratic, free market future that you, the people of Serbia, have decided is most important to you, or are you prepared to live in a rejectionist manner, in a negative kind of framework about what has happened to Serbia in the past, rejecting the connection to Europe, rejecting the overall connection, if you wish, to the Euro-Atlantic community that some others in this country would advocate. This is going to be a time when the people of Serbia and the leadership of Serbia will have stand up and make a call as to what kind of Serbia they would like to see for the future.

B92: But I am certain that you are aware how much the progressive and democratic forces in any country need the support of the international community. The US have always supported democracy, but nevertheless, out of their practical reasons, they have directly or indirectly supported Slobodan Milosevicís regime for years, which ended with the intervention and bombing of Serbia and Montenegro. You can deny this and say that it isnít true, but this is a frustration that a large portion of the Serbian citizenry feels, people who protested in the streets of Belgrade while Washington sent special envoys to sit with Milosevic. I have to remind you that the US acknowledged the elections that the opposition boycotted at the time, and which Milosevic subsequently won.

Polt: It is very important for your viewers to understand that there is a major difference between the United States supporting a regime and the United States dealing with a regime. We often find ourselves, like we did with Mr Milosevic in a situation where we would have to talk to him in order to find a peaceful solution for your country to make a transition to a democracy, to freedom and to economic prosperity. We did not succeed, while you, in the end, did succeed. You, the people of this country, decided in October of 2000: "enough is enough. We want a different way for ourselves for the future." We supported 100% what you were doing then and we have massively supported your transition to democracy and a free market since that time.

B92: Yes, but this happened after the NATO bombing, Mr Polt. Most people here feel that they were being punished for the evils of Slobodan Milosevicís regime. Let me rephrase this question. Do you sometimes wonder, when you go to work and pass by all those crumbling buildings that were ravaged by the bombs, in the vicinity of the US Embassy, whether all this could have been prevented if only the US and the EU had decided to give stronger support to the citizens of Serbia, who were trying to rid themselves of this regime. If they had employed a different approach to, letís not use the word support, but communicate with this regime. You used the word ďdealĒ?

Polt: Every possible effort that could possibly have been made to convince Mr Milosevic and those who were supporting him to relent from their aggressive action that lead to the NATO action that had to be taken against his regime, not against the people of Serbia, every possible option was explored extensively. The last resort that had to be used, very much to the regret of the United States and all of its NATO partners, was done in an effort to help liberate the people of Serbia from Milosevic and his corrupt regime and not to punish the people of Serbia.

B92: Alright, thatís history. Letís return to the present now. The US Government has offered two agreements to the Government of Serbia and Montenegro. What does the Status of Forces Agreement regulate exactly? In Serbia, some have interpreted this document as something that will provide unlimited freedom to US troops on Serbian and Montenegrin soil.

Polt: No, not at all. Both of those agreements are ones that we sign with our friends around the world, not just in Europe, in order for there to be a constructive relationship in terms of security matters between our country and the country that we sign the agreement with. The Status of Forces Agreement does not in any way diminish the right of the Serbian government to decide what kind of forces could be in transit through or be located even temporarily in Serbia. All it does is to set the parameters that once your government has agreed to allow, let's say a temporary presence or transit, of US forces to come thought this country, that we already have rules set up as to how this would take place. The Security Co-operation Agreement is simply one where we agree to co-operate on security matters, which allows us, in turn then, to help you to reform your military, to become a modern, democratically ruled military, that is able to meet the security requirements of your country and to contribute to international peacekeeping.

B92: Mr Polt, the volume of trade between Serbia and Montenegro and the US has increased eight-fold in recent times. Actually, America is the single largest investor in Serbia. One of our guests in Poligraf said yesterday that only three US companies, US Steel, British American Tobacco and a third company have invested 1.5 billion dollars in Serbia to date. However, this volume of trade was marginal earlier, which partly relativises this eight-fold increase I mentioned. Do you see any obstacles to US economic relations with Serbia?

Polt: We see a lot of opportunities in future co-operation and I think you will find that the increased interest of investors in Serbia and Montenegro will continue to increase steadily as it has, as you have just described, over the past years. But, yes there are some obstacles. Obstacles concerning the rule of law in this country, the ability of companies to go ahead and make sure their contracts can be enforced, and that there is an easy process to deal with bureaucratic issues such as licensing and permits for companies to go ahead and do their business. There are also certain kinds of structural impediments to businesses operating in this country, which we are working actively with a very dedicated economic team in your government to try and remove these obstacles in order for there to be more investment here. The fact that you have already noted, that the US is the single largest foreign investor here to the tune of about 1.3 billion dollars, shows that American companies have decided that this is a good potential place to do business, now and in the future.

B92: Which US companies are interested in entering the market of Serbia and Montenegro, can you name a few?

Polt: Well, without giving away any company confidentiality, just in the last few days I have been talking to at least three American companies that have interest in coming to this market and that they are in everything from telecommunications, to media, to banking and manufacturing. I think that in many of the sectors that you have in your country, particularly the workforce, which is quite well educated and able to make the transition from a former economy to a new kind of an economy, will find that these companies will follow the examples of US Steel, Phillip Morris, Ball Packaging, Microsoft, DynCorp and all the others who are already here.

B92: Letís switch the subject, Mr Polt, since our time is running out. Why hasnít the Prime Minister of Montenegro, Milo Djukanovic, been invited to the Prayer Breakfast with the US President this year?

Polt: Contrary to what people believe, the US government does not run the Prayer Breakfast. The Prayer Breakfast is organised by a private organisation and they invite to that event whoever they would like to invite. We have a very good relationship with the Montenegrin leadership, and we have a very good relationship with the opposition in Montenegro. We talk to all the parties there and I don't think you can interpret this in any public or official way.

B92: I asked this because many view it as a political gesture. Do you think that the EU proposal, that Montenegro can gain independence if this option is supported by at least 55% of Montenegrin citizens at the referendum, is a fair offer to both political camps in Montenegro?

Polt: We support the very positive efforts that our EU friends have made in looking for a way forward on the referendum question. We have told our Montenegrin friends that they should listen to our EU partners and my understanding is that both the opposition and the government, either has or is about to agree to that proposal and I think this is a good basis to move forward with the referendum.

B92: I have only one more question on this occasion. What is happening with the plans to build new facilities that should house the US Embassy in Belgrade? Have you received a reply from the SCG Government over the construction grounds? You said this was your biggest frustration since you were appointed Ambassador to Serbia and Montenegro.

Polt: I hope my greatest frustration will turn into one of my greatest victories very shortly and we indeed plan to built a new US$ 100 embassy here in Belgrade, both as a new and modern place to do our business here, but also as a symbol to our relationship that we want to go ahead and foster in the future. We are close to getting an agreement. We particularly still need permission from the city of Belgrade and I hope that the Mayor and I can come to an agreement that this project must go forward and I would like us to come to an agreement this summer.

B92: Thank you for the time you have devoted to the viewers of TV B92.

Polt: Thank you.


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